In her most recent book, “Whose Story is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters,” Rebecca Solnit addresses notably current issues — topics that have been in the news as recently as the past few weeks — while simultaneously analyzing their respective histories.
As someone who has been on a Rebecca Solnit bend for about a year now, “Whose Story is This,” feels as current as possible; however, the topics addressed in some of her earlier books, such as 9/11 and the Iraq War, feel significantly less relevant.
Solnit’s latest essay collection utilizes the same structure as several of her prior books, including “Men Explain Things to Me” and “The Mother of All Questions:” each of the 19 succinct essays critique American society and the world we live in. Themes of gender, citizenship and naming are present throughout the book. The idea of urgency in addressing these matters is detailed repeatedly.
Throughout many of the essays — including “Voter Suppression Begins at Home, The Fall of Men Has Been Greatly Exaggerated”, “Dear Christine Blasey Ford: You Are a Welcome Earthquake” and “Let This Flood of Women’s Stories Never Cease” — Solnit addresses issues regarding gender. Solnit writes of domestic abuse, men silencing women and instances of women speaking out in recent years. Though she has written about these and other gender-centric issues before, “Whose Story Is This,” feels like much more of a timely, reactionary piece.
For instance, instead of an anecdote about Virginia Woolf, there is an anecdote about Greta Thunberg; it feels like you are reading about the world as it is currently unfolding. The majority of Solnit’s canon deals with gender, but this latest book feels more nuanced and analytically complex. Solnit showcases the omnipresent “museum of misogyny” that has not gone anywhere and guides us through its latest exhibits with tact and fluency.
In City of Women, Solnit showcases her ability to take a reality many of us live in and lead us to think about it in newly eloquent ways. Solnit inspects the nomenclature of the world around us, reminding us of how almost everything is labeled after men. New York City is used as a case study, as Solnit guides the reader through boroughs, trains and numerous streets all labeled in honor of male figures. Solnit then compares this male near-dominance with the occasional instance of the corresponding presence (or absence) of women; Solnit wonders how her formative years might have been different had more things in her environment been named in honor of women.
City of Women is reminiscent of the essay The Monument Wars from Solnit’s previous book, “Call Them by Their True Names. City of Women was especially reminiscent of The Monument Wars’ quote, “A city is a book we read by wandering its streets, a text that favors one version of history and suppresses others, enlarges your identity or reduces it, makes you feel important or disposable depending on who you are and what you are.”
In The Monument Wars, and in this quote, it feels as though Solnit is still working through this idea. But in City of Women, she has reached a more complete way of thinking about this concept; she has fully identified the Cities of Men most of us exist in. As a reader, it is satisfying to witness this development in Solnit’s thinking.
Many, if not all of the essays, cite recent examples of the latest installments in the histories of societal situations. One of the essays that does this most effectively is the book’s final piece, Letter to the March 15, 2019 Climate Strikers. Solnit thanks the climate strikers for their work and conveys her hope for the future due to them. In addition to the climate strikers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and the Green New Deal she supports), is mentioned as an example of this timely movement and a catalyst for dramatic yet necessary change.
Reading Solnit’s writing can easily induce some morose thinking, as many topics she focuses on revolve around oppression and sometimes overt, uncensored violence. Despite the many dogmas Solnit iterates throughout the book, she ends on a hopeful note, telling the climate strikers that they “are the force of possibility that runs through the present like a river through the desert. Love, Rebecca.” Solnit tactfully crafts a hopeful book in the face of the troubles it analyzes.